Employer’s Liability

Business, Legal & Accounting Glossary

Definition: Employer’s Liability



Full Definition of Employer’s Liability


An employer can be held liable for harm that befalls his employees at common law, and under various statutory provisions. This overview considers the common law provisions and the way in which these provisions are modified by statute. In addition, an employee may have a remedy against his employer for breach of the employer’s statutory obligations. The principles here are essentially the same as for any other situation in which there is a breach of statutory duty and are not specific to the employment relationship.

So, an employer’s responsibilities to his employees at common law are:

  1. to provide competent co-workers, and
  2. to provide adequate plant and machinery, and
  3. to provide a safe place of work, and
  4. to provide a safe system of work.

An employer’s primary liability to his employees runs alongside and (since the abolition of the doctrine of common employment) does not diminish his vicarious liability in respect of the torts of his employers. So, if you are injured by the incompetence of one of your co-workers, you may have a cause of action against:

  1. that co-worker in his own right, and
  2. your employer, in his own right, for failing to provide competent co-workers, and
  3. your employer, vicariously for your co-worker’s negligence.

It can sometimes be important that there are multiple causes of action. For example, if you are injured by a co-worker in circumstances in which your employer is not deemed to be vicariously liable (because, for example, the employee is not acting in the course of business when the accident occurred), you may still have a claim against your employer in his own capacity. The employer’s duty is, in general, non-delegable.

Provision Of Competent Co-Workers

In Hudson v Ridge Manufacturing (1957) the employer was held liable for an injury caused to an employee by a co-worker’s dangerous horseplay. Employers are not expected to be omniscient; and will not be liable if such horseplay is not reasonably foreseeable (Smith v Crossley Bros 1951). In Hudson, the employers were aware of the employee’s dangerous pranks, and the Court of Appeal held that they had a duty to protect their other employees from his behaviour.

Provision Of Adequate Plant And Machinery

At common law, a claimant injured by defective machinery had to show that the defect was known, or should have been known, to the employer. However, under the employer’s liability defective equipment act (1969), the employer’s duty is an absolute one — he will be liable if there is any defect, even one that can be attributed to the manufacturer of the equipment. However, the claimant still has to show that the inadequacy or defectiveness of the equipment was causative of his injury; the principles of causation are essentially the same as for Negligence (see causation in negligence; McWilliams v Sir William Arrol 1962).

Provision Of A Safe Workplace

Unlike the duty to provide non-defective equipment, the duty to provide a safe place of work, although burdensome, is not strict. The claimant must show that the employer was in breach of his duty; whether this was the case or not is determined by reference to what is expected of a reasonable employer (Latimer v AEC 1953). He must also show that the employer’s breach of this duty was the cause of his injury.

Provision Of A Safe System Of Work

That an employer must provide safe equipment and a safe workplace is uncontroversial. There are, of course, borderline cases, but the principles are relatively well accepted. Many of the troublesome cases concern the employer’s duty to provide a ‘safe system of work’. Since almost any injury that occurs in the workplace can, at a pinch, be attributed to an unsafe system of work, there has to be some way to limit the liability of the employer to a reasonable level. As always, the standard expected of the employer is that standard of a ‘reasonable employer’. The employer cannot be expected to protect his employees from their most egregious follies, but at the same time, he must take steps to eradicate obviously dangerous practices, however well-established (General Cleaning Contractors v Christmas 1952).

Despite a certain amount of controversy, it is now accepted that the duty to provide a safe system of work extends to protecting the employee from a stress-related illness; see stress in the workplace for more details.


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Definition Sources


Definitions for Employer’s Liability are sourced/syndicated and enhanced from:

  • A Dictionary of Economics (Oxford Quick Reference)
  • Oxford Dictionary Of Accounting
  • Oxford Dictionary Of Business & Management

This glossary post was last updated: 5th April, 2020 | 1 Views.